87,214 Londoners disenfranchised for over-voting: What happened to ‘divining the voter’s intention’?

Chris Game

 

Six months ago, while Donald Trump’s backers were issuing lawsuits to have vote-counting stopped in states threatening to swing from Republican to Democrat, Biden supporters marched with banners calling on officials to ‘Count Every Vote’. Examining the statistics of the recent London Mayoral election count, I can identify at least with their message.

Our elected Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections have from the outset used the ‘preferential’ Supplementary Vote (SV) system, involving potentially a second round run-off between the two leading first-round candidates to ensure the winner is elected with an overall majority. It’s hardly brain-straining, and offers voters fractionally greater choice than ‘First-Past-The-Post’, with which – for barely disguised partisan reasons – the Home Secretary plans to replace it.

The SV ballot paper has two columns of boxes alongside candidates’ listed names: one cleverly labelled ‘Column A – 1st choice’; the other, yes, ‘Column B – 2nd choice’. Voters are instructed that:

You have 2 choices for Mayor.

Mark [X] your first choice in Column A.

Mark [X] a different second choice in Column B.

You must make a first choice or your vote won’t be counted.

Each vote must be for a different candidate.

 

I readily defer to Lewis Baston’s professional electoral expertise, but I do question his view that this rubric is “certainly among the more confusing that has been deployed in a British election”.  Seriously less clear than, for instance, that in the previous five London Mayoral elections or two previous PCC elections? This year’s 20 Mayoral candidates obviously lengthened the ballot paper and made choice-making potentially trickier, but don’t blame the wording.

Something, however, certainly was responsible for, in the FIRST count alone, 87,214 ballot papers of the 42% of London electors sufficiently motivated either to physically turn out or return a postal ballot being NOT counted, for the single reason of “voting for too many candidates” in Column A – topping EASILY the totals of 16 of the 20 candidates.

A further nearly 27,000 ballots were rejected for other reasons – being left blank, voters revealing their identities, etc. – giving a first-count rejection total of over 114,000. That’s 4.3%, over double the previous (2004) record, and one in every 23 voters who had chosen to participate.

As it happens, this was fractionally under the national total of rejected/invalid votes for all reasons at the 2019 General Election – itself nearly 60% up on 2017, but still, by comparison, totalling ‘only’ 0.37%.  It’s that 87,214, then, I found genuinely shocking – and that prompted this blog.

To emphasise, with apologies for repetition: first, these rejections have nothing to do with the verification of voters’ personal identifiers. This happens before ballots get anywhere near the count, resulting in generally some 4% being excluded, mostly for lack or indecipherability of signature and/or date of birth.

The 87,214, then, are solely verified ballots rejected from the FIRST count of the SV system that gives electors two possible votes and may comprise two separate, necessarily independent, counts.  A further 384,000 ballot papers were excluded from that second count, mainly for Column B being left ‘unmarked’.

At which point it’s worth emphasising that, for Londoners, SV is neither new nor new-fangled. They’ve been using it since 2000, while over 60% of the world’s democracies seem somehow to cope with generally somewhat trickier systems of real proportional representation. At first sight, these rejection figures suggest many Londoners are not only what my mother would have called ‘slow on the uptake’, but getting slower. Or are there other explanations?

In 2012, Boris Johnson’s second win, nearly 22,000 ballots were rejected for interpreting ‘first preference’ in the plural – still a lot, but under 1%.  In 2016, Sadiq Khan’s first win, it was over 32,000, and up to 1.2%, with total rejections close to 50,000 or 1.9%.  A lot, and worrying – you might think – but still in a different league from this year’s single-cause 87,214.

The even more worrying thing, though, is that people – official people, like the Electoral Commission and London Assembly Elections Review Committee/Panel -have been worrying about and inquiring into this and other problematic features of these elections pretty well from the start.

As with everything London you have to start with its sheer size, in this case its electorate’s size. One consequence is the high proportion of postal voters – which means additional rejection opportunities (signature, date of birth, etc.). 

Much bigger, though, is the counting itself, which for London mayoral elections has from the outset been electronic: e-counting, before England and Scotland were even officially piloting it.  I, almost needless to say, have nil understanding of how the vital, techie bits of this work, but that doesn’t prevent ignorant suspicion – despite, or indeed reinforced by, seeing it in operation.  

I don’t like any of it: the regularly changing IT companies used; the emptying of the familiar, battered ballot boxes into large, impersonal scanners that jam when ballot papers aren’t torn cleanly from their counterfoils; the whole concept of auto-adjudication, and the  automatised rejection of ballot papers because the computer can’t figure out their ‘indeterminate’ markings; not seeing the rows of batched ballot papers piling, or not piling, up against the candidates’ named signs.

Above all, though, it’s that any rejection decision at the end of this untransparent process is made first by the ‘machine’ before being adjudicated and possibly overruled by the local Returning Officer (RO). Human being finally gets to challenge advanced technology!

My sense is that we’ve seen two potentially conflicting trends over the past couple of decades. Machines are being programmed to reject anything that doesn’t have the specified number of specified markings in the specified boxes.  ROs, meanwhile, are being instructed NOT necessarily to reject ballots if, for example, the vote is “not marked in the proper place, marked other than by a cross, marked by more than one mark, if an intention to give a … vote for not more than one candidate clearly appears on the ballot paper” (my emphasis).

That last quote is from the Electoral Commission’s Doubtful Ballot Papers booklet for Police and Crime Commissioner and Mayoral elections – which also provides illustrations of acceptable and unacceptable votes. The apparent emphatic message:  look at the whole ballot paper, at all the voter’s markings, and, if the voter’s intention can be unambiguously discerned, it counts.

Understandably, the numbers of ballot papers scrutinised in this way – nowadays in a “Covid-secure manner”, of course, and this year at just three London centres – are never published; possibly not even counted. But, if 87,214 were rejected in that first count alone, one can only imagine and guess, and it’s a mind-boggling number – and that’s without my having even yet mentioned the parallel elections for constituency and London-wide London Assembly Members.      

Under that kind of pressure, with the media pestering you throughout the Saturday for the Mayoral result, which by that time clearly wasn’t going to go down to the proverbial wire, the temptation not to turn every scrutiny into an argument with “the machine” must, I imagine, be powerful indeed.

Anyway, mulling all this over, I was reminded of when I covered the 2015 General Election campaign for the international academic current affairs website, The Conversation. On Election Eve I described how we in the UK did vote-counting and adjudication, “the aim nowadays being to divine the voter’s intention wherever possible, rejecting only where it is completely unclear”.

I illustrated with the reported case from the recent European Parliament elections of a Western Isles ballot paper marked “wank, wank, good guy, wank” being accepted as an intended vote for the (SNP) “good guy” – little knowing that that very day a “detailed representation of a penis instead of a cross” would be similarly deemed valid.

Like the favoured MP himself, that particular case struck me as possibly ‘over-divining’ the voter’s intention, but it prompted me to look at some of the interpretations ROs would have been making this month in London. The Electoral Commission doesn’t have published views on the positive or negative messages of sketched genitalia, but it does provide over 50 examples of allowable and reject-worthy SV ballot papers, including my selected three from each group.

Ballots1

Obviously, none of the allowed ballots conform to the voter instructions quoted at the start.  So, would the computer have rejected them?  If so, would they have found their way to the RO – and, following scrutiny, all three been allowed back into the first count and Examples 8 and 14 into the second?  Or were one or all part of the 87,214?

Ballots2

The ’Rejects’ are slightly trickier, because it requires acknowledgement of these Mayoral and PCC elections potentially comprising two completely separate counts. Yet examples 28 and 31 do precisely what the ballot paper instructs for inclusion in the first count, while 30 does precisely what was deemed allowable in Example 14. Without going into further detail, and taking account of the latitude granted in the ‘Allowed’ examples, a case could easily be argued for all three being eligible for inclusion in the second count.

As will be evident, much of the above is conjecture.  I do, though, seriously feel we need to know more about that 87,214 and whether it comprised significant numbers of cases where the voter’s intention could have been divined.

 

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Stop playing party politics with Mayors and Police Commissioners

Chris Game

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about choropleth maps and the accuracy, or otherwise, of the UK’s locally compiled electoral registers, in which I indulgently referred to the University of Essex, and particularly its Department of Government’s late Professor Anthony King, thanks chiefly to whom, as a 1960s postgrad student, I first became interested in such abstruse matters.

For me those UoE years were transformative, as no doubt they were for countless successors, including two prominent MPs – former Commons Speaker, John Bercow, and current Home Secretary, Priti Patel – whom The Times somehow mixed up in Professor King’s obituary. Recounting King’s tale of the now well-known ex-student whose thesis had been “so bad I virtually had to rewrite it” … the student was incorrectly identified as Bercow … rather than Patel. Grovelling apologies ensued, and not inconsiderable mirth.

It’s a pleasing story, but I’d have struggled to justify raising it, were we not currently witnessing a further example of Patel’s either inability or refusal to grasp the workings of surely King’s specialist Mastermind subject: electoral systems. The Home Secretary, in reviewing the role of our 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), wants to replace from 2024 what she calls the “transferable system”, by which they – plus the Mayor of London and nine Combined Authority Mayors – are elected, with the ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) system we use for MPs.

Patel offers several reasons. It is “in line with the government’s (2019) manifesto position in favour of FPTP”, creates “stronger and clearer local accountability”, and “reflects that transferable voting systems (her plural, my emphasis) were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum”.  Plus presumably, though unmentioned, she reckons on balance it would benefit the Conservative Party.

None of her assertions are straightforwardly true; only, strictly speaking, the bit about voters rejecting the 2011 referendum question – by a certainly decisive 68%. But that referendum was about one particular system, the Alternative Vote (AV) – supported ironically by neither party in the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and rejected understandably by voters as a contribution to producing the more fairly elected and representative House of Commons that at least many hoped the long awaited referendum would be about. Nothing to do with electing powerful, high profile and individually accountable public officials.

Moreover, if referendums are important, in the 1998 one creating the Greater London Authority, London electors voted by 72% for a Mayor elected by the then novel, but much debated, Supplementary Vote system she wants to abolish for us all with no voter consultation at all.

Her ‘transferable voting systems’ is anyway a potentially misleading term that I doubt Professor King would have used. ‘Preferential’ better describes the several systems allowing voters to express their ordered preferences for a list of candidates.

Best known is probably the highly ‘voter-friendly’ Single Transferable Vote (STV), used in multi-member constituencies, as in Scottish and Northern Irish local elections, where there are two objectives. First, to elect perhaps more representative ‘slates’ of local councillors than our FPTP system produces, and ultimately to elect more community-representative councils (or parliaments) by greatly reducing the numbers of ‘wasted’ votes cast for losing candidates.

Voters rank-order as many candidates as they like. A ’quota’ is set, based on the numbers of seats to be filled and votes cast. Then, once a candidate reaches that quota, proportions of their ‘surplus’ votes are transferred to voters’ second and subsequent choices until all vacancies are filled.

By contrast, PCCs and Mayors, as even the Home Secretary will have noticed, are elected individually. So the relevant ‘preferential system’ here is the Supplementary Vote (SV), using ballot papers with two columns of voting boxes, enabling voters to X both their favouritest candidate and their second favourite.

If no candidate gets over half the first-column vote – as in 36 of the 40 contests in the 2016 PCC elections, all five London and roughly two-thirds of all mayoral elections to date – just the top two candidates continue to a run-off, and will probably have campaigned with that eventuality in mind.

If either your first- or second-choice candidate gets through, they get your run-off vote. The important consequence is that the winner – here, every elected and accountable PCC – can claim the legitimacy and authority of having secured a majority electoral mandate.

Under Patel’s preferred FPTP system, 229 of our serving MPs could be accused of having slunk into office on minority vote mandates of regularly under 40%.  Personally, I’d feel slightly diffident, even as a Conservative MP, knowing both I and my party’s Government were elected on way short of majority votes. But for a PCC, daily exercising wide-ranging policing powers, it would be potentially undermining.

In our ‘local’ 2016 West Midlands election, the incumbent Labour PCC David Jamieson, seeking re-election, managed ‘only’ 49.88% of first-preference votes – fifth highest out of 40 English and Welsh contests, incidentally. But in the necessary second-round run-off against the Conservative, Les Jones, that was raised to a significantly weightier 63.4%.

The difference, and demonstrable majority electoral mandate, would be handy for an MP – but of genuine weight and almost daily importance for Police and Crime Commissioners, more than half of whom received under 40% of first-round votes.

Or, indeed, for elected mayors. I can’t but think West Midlands Conservative Mayor Andy Street feels considerably more comfortable being able to claim a 50.4% run-off victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in 2017, as opposed to the 41.9% that would have given him a FPTP victory.

Time now, with a final paragraph already typed, for a very belated declaration of interest – personal and academic interest, that is – in an electoral system effectively invented, developed and, I’d argue, deployed effectively during my university teaching lifetime. I knew, at least distantly, both possible claimants to the SV’s invention, and, while I’m well aware of its limitations, I do believe it was and, after 20 years’ usage, is the best system realistically available for the election of mayors and PCCs.

If you’re interested in more, try the excellent evaluative paper written at about the halfway point in that history – and so before the invention of PCCs – by Colin Rallings and colleagues.  Pluses include a neat summary list of SV plus points (p.4), and some colourful and interesting bar charts.

But nothing to rival the Electoral Reform Society’s recent effort: a creation of interactive beauty (the real thing, not my reproduction, obviously!), produced especially for this year’s elections, and showing for instance, as you’d possibly hypothesise, that first-choice Britain First and One Love Party voters split their second-choice votes proportionately really rather differently.

Election of London Mayor

To conclude: my hope is that at least Patel’s intervention will prompt a few interesting campaign questions – I was going to type ‘hustings’, but I’m not sure we’re allowed those this time – for Conservative PCC and mayoral candidates. The 20 successful Conservative PCC candidates in 2016 averaged 36% of turnouts averaging under 25%, or under 10% of the registered electorates.  Do they, I wonder, think election on their minority first-round votes alone – 11% of registered electors in Andy Street’s case – would give them the “stronger and clearer local accountability” Patel suggests it would?

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

The success of Police and Crime Commissioners in drug harm reduction in the West Midlands

Megan Jones

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were introduced in 2012, (2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act), representing one of the most radical changes to governance structures in England and Wales. PCCs are directly elected by the public and their statutory functions require them to (1) hold their own police force to account on behalf of the public, (2) set the policing priorities for the area through a police and crime plan and (3) appoint a Chief Constable.

They replace the former Police Authority committee style structure, which was criticised for their lack of visibility and accountability to the public and communities they were designed to serve. The emergence of PCCs was therefore a result of the failings of the previous governance mechanism and a political shift of focus from national to local governance.

In my research, I look at the impact that PCC governance has on drug policy, using the West Midlands police force area as a case study. Drugs policy, and specifically a harm reduction approach*, is just one area of policing and priorities that was used to explore the statutory role of PCC and more broadly, how the role can be interpreted or used wider than its statutory framework.

In August 2019, the latest drug-related death figures were announced by the ONS. They are now the highest on record, with 4,359 deaths in England and Wales recorded in 2018 (ONS, 2019). In the West Midlands, there is a drug-related death every 3 days (West Midlands PCC 2017a). Over 50% of serious and acquisitive crime is to fund an addiction and the cost to society is over £1.4 billion each year (West Midlands PCC 2017a). This topic often divides opinion and can be politicised. However, these debates rarely prevent the considerable damage caused by drugs to often very vulnerable people and wider society. The official national response is focused on enforcement of the law, criminalising individuals for drug possession.

By interviewing a number of key actors within the drug policy arena and as leaders in policing both within forces and PCC’s offices, I looked at how the PCC structure can enable a change in policy. This was combined with desk-based document study of public available document into the drugs policy approach taken in the West Midlands. Four key themes were explored: the statutory role of the PCC; the individual PCC; governance and public opinion; and the approach taken.

My results showed that the PCC role and this new form of civic leadership benefitted from: convening power and their ability to draw upon key partners from across the public sector, lived experience, and third sector. This is an informal mechanism of governance strengthened by public mandate. PCCs have the ability to prioritise by setting their strategic priorities in the police and crime plan. For example, in the West Midlands, the approach to drug policy has been narrowed to focus on high harm drugs (heroin and crack cocaine), thus ensuring ‘deliverability’. This means that limited resources available are more narrowly focused and can have a greater impact. The statutory role of a PCC allows work at pace and decisions to be made quickly, which means that trial and pilot new approaches and innovations.

Of course, there are limitations. PCCs vary across the country and often do not speak with one voice, particularly on drug policy. There are also huge advantages of a good working relationship between Chief Constable and PCC, demonstrated through the joint approach in the West Midlands.

Figure 1: Drivers to drug policy, derived from the findings

My research allowed me to concluded that three key drivers are optimum for delivery of a PCC-led harm reduction approach: using the levers at their disposal, such as the statutory functions, and informal governance mechanisms, such as convening power, which are able to provide the strategic and political coverage required to deliver at pace.

PCCs are unique in the landscape of UK governance and whilst weaknesses in mechanisms designed to reign in their power could be viewed as worrying, in the drug policy space this has allowed for the development of a new approach in the West Midlands, one that is evidence-based and has the ability to save lives, reduce costs and reduce crime.

The potential of PCCs is arguably still being explored, but their ability to test new approaches and work effectively with partners will be essential in other areas of policy, such as the response to serious violence and the potential for an increasing role across the criminal justice system.

PCCs have a number of levers at their disposal, and are able to use informal and formal governance mechanisms to foster real change at the local level and drive forward evidence-based policy.

Megan Jones is the Head of Policy for the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and is a former INLOGOV student, studying on the MSc Public Management programme. She tweets at @MegJ4289.